The recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor moved me to tears as I learned more about the life and widespread influence of Fred Rogers and his TV series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” In each episode, looking directly at the camera, he asked his television viewers, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Alternating between his living room and the whimsical puppet community, Mr. Rogers reminded children that loving those around them—their neighbors—was of utmost importance. The characters in the following three picture books show genuine love for their neighbors through their small yet important acts of kindness. With gentleness and sincerity, they invite children to (in the words of Mr. Rogers) “imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind act to another person.”
Found by Jeff Newman and Larry Day
This wordless story of love found, lost and then found again will resonate with every child who has ever loved a pet. In the opening pages, a little girl looks out of her apartment window and spies a pup wandering through puddles. She brings it inside and provides food and a dry bed. A poster and framed bedside photograph reveal that in the past, the girl has lost a dog dear to her. After a tentative first night, the pair begins to bond and soon there is no doubt that the girl has come to love the new puppy. Not long afterward as they are walking home from the pet store, the girl spies a “Lost Roscoe” flier with her puppy’s picture. Despite her obvious sadness, the girl returns Roscoe to the owner. The story ends on a hopeful note when the girl passes the Human Society on her way home and spies a forlorn boxer sitting in the window. Considering our neighbor’s feelings and putting their needs above our own are hard concepts to grasp, but in this story, these big ideas are conveyed in a sensibility that is developmentally perfect for children.
• Inference—Wordless books require children to study the illustrations as the way of deciphering characters’ feelings. In Found, the main character goes through a range of complex emotions. Reread the book through with students and write down (on the board or chart paper) the adjectives they use to describe how the girl is feeling. Read the book for a third time. This round, invite children to tell you why they chose these particular adjectives . . . what concrete illustration details did they use to infer the girl’s feelings? Make a concept map by connecting each illustration clue with the appropriate adjective.
• Compare and contrast—Share Stephanie Graegin’s wordless picture book Little Fox in the Forest with students. Like Found, this story shares similar themes and colorwork, but they are vastly different in their settings, characters and plot execution. Guide students in creating a two circle Venn diagram. As a class, identify one similarity and one difference between Found and Little Fox in the Forest. Allow time for students to individually fill out their diagrams.
• Parts of a book—This story begins on the front endpapers. Readers who skip to the official first page will miss two key plot points. Use this as an opportunity to introduce students to the concept of reading every part of a book. Discuss front and back endpapers and the title page. Pose the question, “What would happen if I skipped over the endpapers, opening pages and title page?”
Zola’s Elephant by Randall de Séve and Pamela Zagarenski
A new girl named Zola has moved in next door to de Séve’s unnamed protagonist, and despite her mothers’ wishes, she is convinced they won’t be friends because “Zola already has a friend. I know because I saw the big box.” The girl is convinced there is an elephant inside the box. Richly colored mixed-media illustrations show the fun adventures (eating toast, taking bubble baths, playing hide-and-seek and building a clubhouse) that the girl imagines Zola is having with her elephant best friend. Muted illustrations on the intervening pages show readers that Zola is actually bored and lonely. Finally, with her own stuffed elephant tucked under one arm, the narrator rings Zola’s doorbell, and the final illustrations show the new friends’ magical adventures filled with whales, hot air balloons and (of course) an elephant. Equal parts practical and fantastical, Zola’s Elephant shows children that reaching out to others isn’t always easy, but it often reaps big rewards.
• Creativity—It nearly killed me, but I read aloud the first page to my students and then stopped. Ignoring their protests, I sent them back to their seats with the writing prompt, “Tell me what you think is in Zola’s big box.” After they had written a sentence or two, I provided oversized paper, pastels, patterned paper, colored pencils and other art supplies. They spent the next 30 minutes making their ideas into a visual picture. The creations turned out to be more original and personality-revealing than I had anticipated, and the children loved engaging in the open-ended art project.
• Imagination vs. Reality—Make a T-Chart with the words “imagination” and “reality.” Fill out the chart with your students and compare the narrator’s imaginings with Zola’s reality. For example, the narrator smells toast and imagines Zola sharing a fanciful tea party with her elephant. In reality, using a box as a table, Zola is forlornly staring at a solitary piece of toast.
• How DO you transport an elephant?—At the end of the book, one of my nonfiction-loving students inquired, “How big of a box do you need to move a real elephant?” I didn’t have an immediate answer, but I was delighted to discover this article by the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute. It covers all the fascinating transportation details that were required to move an elephant from the Smithsonian Zoo in Washington, D.C., to the Calgary Zoo in Calgary, Alberta. We looked at photographs of the journey and even did a few math equations with the details provided. Afterward, we watched a video of an elephant being transported from a conservatory to a wildlife compound.
Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora
On the very top floor of her apartment building, Omu (the Igbo term for “queen”) is making a thick red stew in her big fat pot. A little boy comes to her door to inquire about the most delicious smell. Omu gives him a bowl of stew and sends him on his way, but the smell has the attention of the entire neighborhood. Ms. Police Officer, Mr. Hot Dog Vendor, a construction worker and the mayor are just a few of the many neighbors who stop by for a bowl of the scrumptious stew. When Omu opens the pot for her nice evening meal, she finds it empty. But then she hears a knock and opens the door to find her neighbors are back! Only this time, they shower her with food and cards. Squeezing into Omu’s small apartment they eat, dance and celebrate. With its bold mixed-media illustrations and rhythmic prose, Thank You, Omu! captured the attention of my students and provided a natural segue for a discussion about hospitality and community kindness.
• Notes of gratitude—In the author’s note at the end of the book, Mora explains how Thank You, Omu! is a celebration of her late grandmother’s life: “Everyone in the community had a seat at my grandmother’s table.” Her grandmother’s selfless gift of hospitality as well her delicious stew made an impression on Mora. Discuss hospitality with your students. Ask them to think of a person in their lives who has demonstrated hospitality and kindness toward them or the community. And then, following the example of the little boy in the book, guide them in writing personal thank-you notes. This is an ideal opportunity to teach the fundamentals of writing notes of gratitude, a skill that will serve students for the rest of their lives.
• Shades of meaning game—When Omu tells them about her stew, the little boy says, “That sure sounds yummy.” Ms. Police Officer says, “That sounds mighty tasty.” Mr. Hot Dog Vendor says, “That sound quite delectable.” Discuss how yummy, tasty and delectable are words that share a similar meaning. Let students work in pairs for a game of synonyms. Give each pair a thesaurus (or let them use an online thesaurus) and explain how a thesaurus helps writers with word choice. After a few practice words, write a sentence with a strong verb or adjective on the board and underline the word you want them to replace. Give students time to use find and choose a new word. Let each group share their new sentence with the class. After a word is used, it can’t be used by another pair. At the end of each round, give a point to the pair who chose the most effective or creative synonym.
• Importance of Setting—Ask students, “Could this story have happened in a rural or suburban neighborhood?” Discuss how the compactness of a city block as well as the community members who work and live in close proximity are crucial to this story. Read other books in which the setting is an integral part of the story. Read aloud a few more books that have settings that influence the story and then let students look through more examples on their own. Let students apply their new understandings by drawing their own strong setting. Extend the activity with older students by inviting them to add characters and stories to accompany their imagined setting. Some of my favorite recent strong setting books include A House That Once Was, Imagine! and Hello Lighthouse.